Dylann Roof trial resumes: hate crimes and the insanity defense

Jury selection has resumed after being put on hold earlier this month in order to determine whether Dylann Roof was mentally capable of standing trial. 

Jason Miczek/Reuters
Police lead suspected shooter Dylann Roof into the courthouse in Shelby, N.C, on June 18, 2015.

Dylann Roof, who shot nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C., last year, is mentally competent to stand trial, a federal judge ruled on Friday.

The jury selection process, which had been put on hold Nov. 7, resumed on Monday following a two-day hearing in which US District Judge Richard Gergel met with four unnamed witnesses and psychologist James Ballenger to come to the conclusion that Mr. Roof was capable of understanding the charges against him and assisting with his own defense. On Monday, Roof also announced that he would be mounting his own defense, though lawyers can stand by to help him if he asks. Roof had initially offered to plea guilty if the death penalty was taken off the table, but prosecutors refused the deal. It is not known what defense Roof will mount for himself.

With the increase in mass shootings over the past few years, the so-called insanity plea has become an increasingly popular legal strategy for shooters for whom guilt is apparent by the very nature of the crime, though the plea has rarely paid off. But the use of the defense raises several questions about the ramifications of blaming hate crimes on mental illness, and how courts interpret the plea in the 21st century.

The defense's legal claim that Roof was not mentally fit for trial before the proceedings actually began was not, in itself, an insanity plea. Before a trial, a lawyer may claim that the defendant is not capable of adequately assisting in his or her own defense, but it is not until a trial is actually underway that an insanity plea can be entered. While not being mentally fit for a trial may imply that the defendant was not fully in control of his or her actions during the crime itself, Roof's alleged mental illness during trial would not necessarily mean that mental illness was at play during the shooting.

According to the order handed down by Judge Gergel, "A defendant must have the 'capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing his defense'.... A defendant bears the burden of proving he is not competent by a preponderance of the evidence."

Now that Roof has not been able to prove a lack of competence in order to avoid the trial, it would become much more difficult to argue for an insanity plea in the trial itself.

An insanity defense hinges on the argument that the defendant is not fully responsible for his or her actions during the time of a crime because of reduced agency originating from some kind of psychiatric disease. If Roof is found guilty and to have been mentally competent at the time of the shooting, he could be seen as fully responsible for his actions and could face the death penalty. That fate could theoretically be avoided if an insanity plea were successful in this case.

But despite the prevalence of "pleading insanity" in film and television, insanity defense in the real world is actually quite rare. Less than 1 percent of all defendants use the plea in the United States, and of those, most are unsuccessful. But for mass shooting cases, the insanity plea can seem like a last hope for shooters when the evidence is overwhelmingly against them and there is no plausible way to plead not guilty.

At the trial of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooter, James Holmes, who killed 12 people and injured dozens more during a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises," evoked the insanity plea for his defense. It was the first time Colorado had contemplated the plea during a death penalty case, as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported. The plea was ultimately unsuccessful, though Holmes did avoid the death penalty, getting sentenced instead to life in prison without possibility of parole.

"Even if there's compelling evidence that insanity is plausible, juries certainly don't buy it," James Alan Fox, who studies criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, told NPR shortly after the June 2015 shooting in Charleston. "They look at nine people killed and they believe, not wrongly, but they do believe that someone who will get away with murder if they are found not guilty by reason of insanity. There's nothing here [in Roof's case] that would suggest that he didn't know what he was doing."

Nevertheless, those who commit hate crimes like Roof's are often quickly denounced as "insane" after the case is made public, which can be damaging in and of itself. Controversy on the internet erupted after multiple media sources called Roof insane after his shooting, with critics claiming that the tendency to claim mental illness on the part of mass shooters only serves to "excuse" white shooters while persons of color committing similar crimes are typically called "terrorists," "thugs," or similar terms.

Many critics also say that automatically attributing insanity to a mass shooter unfairly stigmatizes the mentally ill, who are no more likely to be violent than anyone else, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

"This is partly a bias or double standard ... but it also reflects the fact that mass shooting incidents are more often than not committed by white men who do have mental health issues," Don Haider-Markel, professor and chair of the department of political science at the University of Kansas, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "But many terrorists are labeled as insane or crazy as well, even though all existing research suggests that mental health problems are about as common among terrorists as they are in the general population. So while it is common for observers to label any act of mass violence as insane or crazy, the sanity of these actors can only be determined by medical professionals, but we do indeed have a history of mentally unstable white men that have committed mass atrocities. In part this is where the lone-wolf label comes from, and lone-wolf acts are far more common in the US than anywhere else on earth."

The legal definition of what "insanity" constitutes does not always mesh with more recent neurological and psychological notions of how the mind works. And the vague understanding of how mental responsibility plays into mass shootings and hate crimes only compounds the problem, leaving jurors and legal experts to deal with muddy precedents and political considerations interfering with trials on a case-per-case basis.

Roof currently faces 33 federal charges, including murder and hate crimes. He also faces 9 counts of murder in an upcoming state trial, which he has also been found mentally competent to go through.

This article contains material from the Associated Press.

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